Is your network smart enough to pass the virtualisation IQ test?
Philippe Morin is the chief operating officer of EXFO, a provider of network test, data and analytics solutions that is supporting communications service providers (CSPs) across the globe in a massive industry transformation driven by network functions virtualisation and software-defined networking. Here, he tells VanillaPlus that the industry is entering the critical automation phase of virtualisation, where CSPs will need smarter service assurance with real-time insights from all three dimensions: network, service and subscriber
VP: The new NFV-enabled virtual network involves perpetual change as the network alters to support different types of services and different levels of user demand. How is it different to previous shifts in technological generations?
PM: Every ten years or so the industry goes through a major transformation and we’re on the latest one now with software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualisation (NFV). We certainly see the need for customers to continue to modernise with technologies such as fibre-tothe customer, fibre-to-the-antenna and 5G coming to market, but these are similar to previous shifts from one technological generation to another. What’s really different today is that virtualisation and intelligence are two new components, so the transformation is not just a technical modernisation: we’re making the network intelligent and we’re virtualising it as well.
But it’s important to note that the shift in our industry is not just about virtualisation, it’s about automation and it’s about ultimately enabling DevOps environments to exist. This is what I expect to happen in the future.
For EXFO, the NFV/SDN transformation is a great opportunity to make networks smarter. We boost network IQs to make sure virtualisation delivers.
VP: What are the implications for network and service assurance?
PM: Smarter networks need smarter service assurance, which has two main implications. First, as our customers migrate to virtual networks, there will be a hybrid of virtual and physical networks in operation. During this hybrid period – which will last for many years – CSPs will need both hardwarebased solutions and virtualised probes, as well as analytics.
The second implication is that end-to-end, real-time analytics are now critical to unlock the value of NFV/SDN. In the past, CSPs could rely on analytics systems that measured network attributes every 15 minutes; but as you virtualise the network and make it on-demand, insights have to be gathered in real time. It’s also essential that decisions be informed by what we at EXFO call 3D analytics: real-time insights from all three dimensions – network, service and subscriber – to improve quality of experience and the bottom line.
VP: You said that the shift to virtualisation is about ultimately enabling DevOps environments to exist. How can CSPs get to the end goal?
PM: Real-time becomes really critical as you move into the virtualised, intelligent networks era. Automation is essential to enable a network to be turned up or down on demand using virtual network functions (VNFs) in a service chain, or wide area network (WAN) optimisers.
We view the move to virtualised networks in three phases. The first was virtualising; this is well underway and will give CSPs the benefit of improved cost efficiency.
Next comes automation, the phase the industry is entering now. This involves having systems that allow you to have services on demand, as well as monitoring and billing. To achieve this, an even more real-time analytics platform is vital, not just at the network level but at the subscriber and service level as well. The real-time aspect of providing the key performance indicators (KPIs) of all data sources and ultimately controlling the network in an automated way is going to be fundamental.
You can’t do this by polling the network every 15 minutes, so the way you design your system must be to constantly poll and receive information and then correlate it into usable insights as it comes in.
The third phase, which will take a bit more time, is achieving the DevOps environment where a CSP can create new services, automate them and bring them into the production environment immediately. Such services can be rapidly scaled up if they’re successful, or be removed quickly if they prove unattractive. Enabling services to be developed, brought to market, scaled up or failed fast is the ultimate goal, but that will happen in the years ahead.
VP: What is EXFO’s view of the transition to NFV? How do you foresee it happening?
PM: 5G is a virtualisation-based technology, but when it’s introduced it will have to live with LTE networks, which most of our customers have just finished migrating to. This forces part-virtualised environments for CSPs, but they will take different approaches. For example, on the enterprise side, some providers will move to virtualised customer premise equipment (vCPE) but large financial institutions will probably keep their hardware-based infrastructure.
There is no debate, though. Virtualisation will happen. Our experience is that we’re coming into an interesting phase in the transition. 18 months ago, the dialogue was with the CTO organisation and planning and architecture organisation who were looking at how to migrate. Now, the market has moved from proofs of concepts to how to actually integrate into the network. Discussions are with the operations team now, the people responsible for maintaining the network and operating the services. Operationalisation is where we bring value to our customers because we can boost network IQ by bringing the functionality to implement and operationalise this phase into the network.
Virtualisation is real and it’s being done. Virtual evolved packet cores (vEPCs) are happening and if we stop there, we will be pulling up short of realising the total value of an SDN/NFV-enabled network. We’re now looking to tackle automation, the second phase, and we’re starting to see software-defined WANs (SD-WANs) being deployed. Along with the arrival of vEPCs and some vCPEs, this means the challenge becomes much more about how to optimise performance.
VP: What exactly does EXFO offer to enable smarter networks?
PM: Our customers are operating in a context of massive industry transformation where good enough network and analytics just isn’t good enough anymore. And that’s where we come in, offering unique expertise, and test orchestration and real-time 3D analytics solutions. We deliver the measurements, data and network intelligence CSPs need to make their whole network smarter.
Essentially, EXFO is a global team of network test, data and analytics experts. Over the last thirty years, we’ve been working hands-on with our customers in the lab, field, data centre and boardroom to develop smarter solutions for each phase of the network life cycle.
Regarding NFV/SDN, the challenge that real-time 3D analytics addresses is how to ensure, as you operationalise a virtualised network, that you continue to get good KPIs. Boosting the network IQ enables that across multiple services and, critically, in real time. Real-time will be absolutely vital. I use the parallel of road systems. In a city, you can upgrade the road system by adding more lanes or adding buses to decrease the number of private cars but, ultimately, you will have to add more smartness with sensors, cameras and connected cars. All the data from these devices has to be brought back to a realtime system that has the capability to co-ordinate traffic lights and other controls.
The parallel holds in telecoms. Yes, we can add more fibre and move to 5G, but to remain efficient we’re going to have to add intelligence, automation and real-time data analytics. Only then will the promises of virtualisation reach their full potential, and that will be a DevOps world.
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category: Talking Heads